The plains that extend as far as the eye can see start close to the Tagus. While to the north, the pace is set by the green of the flatlands, further south the landscape combines with the sun, the heat and a slower pace of life. This is the Alentejo.
To the north, the pastures of the marshlands; in the vast interior, unending flatness, and fields of wheat waving in the wind; at the coast, wild, beautiful beaches waiting to be discovered.
The vastness of the landscape is dotted with cork oaks and olive trees that withstand time. Santarém is a natural viewpoint over the immensity of the Tagus. Here and there, you find a walled town, such as Marvão or Monsaraz, or an ancient dolmen to recall the magic of the place. Around the hills, low, whitewashed houses stand on small knolls, castles evoke battles and conquests and the yards and gardens are witness to the Arab influences which shaped the people and nature.
In the Alentejo the power of the land marks the time and cities like Elvas and Évora, listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, show the tenacity of the people. Perhaps this is the reason that culture and spirituality take on a singular character here. These memories of the past are also shared by other cities, such as Santarém, Portalegre and Beja, and in the former Jewish quarters, particularly in Castelo de Vide.
The flat land makes hiking and cycling easy, though horses are also part of the landscape. You can combine these rides with birdwatching and, in dams such as Alqueva, with the tranquillity of the waters or stargazing.
But you must also explore the coast. The landscape here is hilly and rugged, with small sheltered coves between the cliffs, many of which are ideal for surfing. You will also breathe the scents of the countryside here, the aromatic herbs that season the fish, seafood and other regional fare to be accompanied by the region’s excellent wines. Indeed, the entire Alentejo lives according to the rhythm of the earth.
Évora, World Heritage Site
Évora, a book of Portuguese art history.
The best way to see the city is on foot, walking through its narrow streets lined with white houses, discovering along the way the monuments and details that reveal the history of Évora and its rich heritage.
Judging by the calm, welcoming surroundings, one easily sees why this city, which dates from the Roman era, was chosen by the kings of Portugal in the 15th century to serve as their residence, a fact that contributed to its development and cultural importance in the following centuries. It was in fact due to Évora´s long history and its urban centre, typical of the 16th to 18th centuries, that has been preserved to our days that lead UNESCO to classify the city as a World Heritage site.
Our starting point: the Praça do Giraldo
Located in the heart of the city, this square is an excellent meeting point, with coffee shops, sidewalk cafés, shops and a tourist information office. On one side is the Church of Santo Antão and the marble drinking fountain (Chafariz) with 8 spouts, representing the 8 streets that lead here.
Starting from the arches of Praça do Giraldo, make your first trip through the main points of interest: the Temple and the Roman baths, the medieval walls, the Cathedral, the Graça Church and São Francisco Church, with its curious Chapel of Bones (Capela dos Ossos).
If you have time, don’t leave out the Museum of Évora, the Eugénio de Almeida Foundation, and the old University, founded in the 16th century and one of the reasons for the young, relaxed spirit we find in Évora. It is also worth your while to walk through the romantic Garden of the Palace of D. Manuel and visit the Ermida de São Brás chapel, outside the city walls.
Whether your visit is cultural or you simply want to enjoy a calm weekend, Évora is an inspiring city with a lot to offer. Outside the city, by taking the secondary roads, you will be able to better appreciate the landscape of the Alentejo. If you're interested in archaeology, take EN114 in the direction of Guadalupe and in 3 km you will come upon Cromeleque dos Almendres, the largest megalith of the Iberian Peninsula. These 95 monoliths are thousands of years old and their purpose has not been discovered as yet.
The Cathedral spire and the Temple
These are the genuine landmarks of the city and are a must for the photo album. The Cathedral spire is easily recognised by its peculiar form, a combination of conical towers that are rare in Portuguese architecture. Located in the centre of the city, it serves as a good guide to see where you are. Did you know that the Cathedral of Évora is the largest medieval cathedral in Portugal?
Very close by, in the Conde Vila Flor square, stands the large Roman temple, a symbol of the emperor worship, which for many centuries was thought to be dedicated to the goddess Diana.
Along the west coast, you can set off to discover Rota Vicentina. You will be accompanied by the ocean between jagged cliffs and, at times, you will be presented with seemingly endless fields of wild flowers. There cannot be a better suggestion for a walk…
This long hiking path covers a total of almost 340km along one of the most beautiful and best preserved coastal areas of Europe, and there are two paths to take to enjoy the diversity of its landscapes.
The “historical road”, at 230km, is the longest route and goes from Santiago do Cacém to the Cape of São Vicente. It is a rural trail, with 12 stages through forest tracks, towns and villages with centuries of history, and can be done on foot or by bike.
The “fishermen’s trail”, in turn, hugs the coast for the 111km between Porto Covo and Odeceixe, using paths that give access to beaches and fishing grounds. It is an exclusively pedestrian trail, more demanding physically, and is organised in four stages and five complementary itineraries.
Each stage covers no more than 25km and is designed to last a day. The schedule is left to personal choice, so you can just attempt the sections that better suit your individual preferences or physical condition.
You can follow the route sequentially, over a number of days, staying overnight in the accommodation associated with the project. Given advance notice, arrangements can even be made to organise luggage transportation, to make your hiking more convenient and comfortable. You will be able to visit monuments and taste the delicious regional cuisine, seafood, fresh fish and the appetising dishes of Alentejo and Algarve standing out, since the Route crosses both regions.
Along the way, you can fully enjoy the landscape and appreciate the surprises nature has to offer, such as wild flowers, the aroma of herbs in the cool of the morning and the colourful butterflies. More detailed observation requires more time, but it provides rare opportunities, like sighting otters, that are almost never found in marine environments, or watching the storks that nest here on the coastal cliffs, like nowhere else in the world.
It is well worth stopping for a day or two to have a go at some activity like surfing in the strong waves of the Atlantic, or discovering a peaceful, perhaps even deserted, beach, and relaxing from the exertions of hiking. As an alternative to the sea, streams and rivers are also good places to get some relief from the heat on summer days.
Many of these trails were already well known to pilgrims who would set off from the Cape of São Vicente towards Santiago de Compostela. Like them, you can arm yourself with comfortable shoes and clothes and be on your way - but without leaving a trace of your passage so as to contribute to the preservation of this natural haven. It will certainly be a memorable walk…
A weekend in Troia
Boat trips in search of dolphins, beaches extending as far as the eye can see, restaurants with fresh fish and terraces on the sand... this is the simplest description of a vacation in Troy, ideal for the whole family.
About an hour from Lisbon, in Setúbal, you simply take the ferry across the river Sado to get to the resort of Troia. On this bank, you’ll find one of the most extensive beaches in Portugal, 18km long, which you can claim for yourself. The mild temperatures of its microclimate allows you to spend a few days full of activities, whether it’s summer or winter.
On the golden sands that extend to the horizon, with the clear waters of the sea on one side and the pine forest on the other, you can have fun with the whole family and, weather permitting, even enjoy some water sports. The area is perfect for windsurfing and sailing, as you can tell by the busy Troia Marina.
Another idea is to take a golf vacation. The Troia course, designed by the famous American architect Bobby Jones, is truly integrated into the landscape, and great for the experience of a real golfing challenge. It is on the list of the best golf courses in Europe and is part of some international competitions.
It’s very common to see dolphins at this point where the river Sado meets the sea, and taking a boat ride with time to observe them is always a good idea. Or go bird watching in the Serra da Arrábida Natural Park or the Sado Estuary Nature Reserve, where there’s no lack of interesting species. Not far away is Carrasqueira, a very traditional fishing port built on stilts.
Signs of human habitation in Troia date back many centuries. The Roman Ruins are amongst the most important archaeological remains, dating from the 1st Century. They were the biggest complex for the production of conserves and fish sauce in the Western Roman Empire, and this is also evidence of the importance of fishing in the local economy since long ago.
Following the road that crosses this spit of sand you will come to other beaches such as Comporta, Carvalhal and Pego, where it is very easy to find a lovely restaurant for having fresh fish, or tasting the local snacks. But a short walk will provide a change of scenery. After Galé beach, the dunes break up to give way to the Melides lagoon, with its five million year old sandstone cliff, and to the Natural Reserves of the Lagoons of Santo André e da Sancha.
Now near Grândola, you will find Badoca Park, a source of entertainment for the whole family, where you can go on a "safari" and see deer, buffaloes, ostriches, giraffes, antelopes, zebras and other animals roaming free that kids and adults will love, right in the middle of the Alentejo.
Relax at Alqueva, the Great Lake
The Great Lake resulting from the Alqueva Reservoir provides the perfect place for spending a few days relaxing and in good company.
We are talking about one of the largest artificial lakes in Europe, built on the River Guadiana. It has a reservoir of 250km2 and covers five Alentejo municipalities, with many points of interest. The right bank offers the castles of Juromenha, Alandroal, Terena, Monsaraz and Portel, and on the left bank, Mourão and Moura provide spectacular viewpoints over this reflecting pool.
The lake has brought an amazing environment to this region. Where once there were fields of olive trees, cork oaks and holm oaks, today there is water and renewed life, with optimal conditions for outdoor activities and for water sports such as sailing, water-skiing and wakeboarding, or for invigorating trips by canoe or kayak. For lovers of hiking and biking, there are marked trails to be followed. They are a good way to discover the customs and traditions and to mix with the local population.
It's a great place to surprise the family with an outing through the scenic roads around Alqueva or, better still, renting a houseboat and sleeping under the stars – which is also an idea worth considering for a romantic weekend. Don’t forget that you are in a region where the sky is considered by UNESCO a reservation for stargazing. At night, public lighting is minimised to afford the perfect conditions to see the sky, even for the most inexperienced astronomers.
You absolutely must visit the new Aldeia da Luz, the only village to be submerged by the dam waters, and which had to be literally relocated. Incidentally, a Museum was created here, the greater part of whose collection consists of objects from the inhabitants, and where all the memories of the old village are recorded.
The town of Monsaraz is also unmissable. A preserved mediaeval town-museum, complete with walls and streets of schist that delight and surprise. Very close by, in the area of the Convent of Orada, the square-shaped Cromlech of Xerez is also a must-see.
Naturally, in Alqueva, as is the case across the country, you cannot resist the flavours of the regional cuisine. In this case, we suggest the açorda (bread casserole), migas (breadcrumbs and garlic sauté), the pork dishes, the sausages and the Alentejo wines.
In the Great Lake, it's easy to let yourself be captivated by rural tourism while appreciating the simple pleasures of country life and contemplating the surrounding nature.
The "Cante Alentejano" (Alentejo Song)
Portugal has, in its cultural heritage, a very genuine musical expression, unique in the world, the "Cante Alentejano" (Alentejo Song), now recognised as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO.
Sung in choir and without any use of musical instruments, by groups of men and women, the "Cante Alentejano" is a popular manifestation which is a feature of several municipalities in the district of Beja, in the region historically known as Baixo Alentejo. However, it was the Municipality of Serpa which took the initiative to register it as World Heritage in conjunction with the Alentejo Regional Tourism Entity.
Although it is currently maintained by choral groups, some of them already centenarians, it always happened in informal contexts, while working in the field or during times of celebration. The lyrics speak of feelings and everyday moments.
Although it is not specific to any Genre or social status, it is often associated with the rural classes that formed in a region where agricultural industrialisation and mining extraction developed during the late 19th and 20th centuries. The first choral group arose in 1926, associated with the workers of the Mines of São Domingos, today deactivated. This initiative was followed by a second group in Serpa, in 1927.
When visiting the region, take a look at the cultural agenda to see if a show is scheduled, but be especially aware as it can happen spontaneously in any tavern or recreation association, during a moment of relaxation after a day’s work. In 2015, the creation of routes and Cante Houses is planned so that you can enjoy this unique expression.
A good way to get to know the "Cante Alentejano" is to watch the documentary “Alentejo, Alentejo”, by Sérgio Tréfaut. Produced also to support the application for World Heritage, it was the Best Portuguese Film at the Lisboa 2014 Indie Festival and the Best Film DOCSBarcelona+Medelín 2014. Don't miss the presentation on the website www.alentejoalentejo.com.